Making an Impact

JFON Impact Litigation creates far-reaching change in the lives of immigrants

Each year, the JFON network of attorneys change, protect, and even save the lives of thousands of immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers. They do this one client at a time, slogging through the miles of paperwork, filings, and court appearances for each case.

But what if you—through your client’s case—could change, protect, or save the life of not only one individual, but hundreds, even thousands of people?

Shane Ellison

Charles “Shane” Ellison, NJFON consulting attorney and legal director for Justice for Our Neighbors Nebraska, is no stranger to high-profile cases of national importance; last year, he authored and filed an amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief before the U.S. Supreme Court.

He’s proud that JFON continues to engage in meaningful work of impact litigation.

“When you are able to positively change policy—and in some instances, create law—though an individual case, you can help countless people with similar cases who come after that original client,” he explains. “The potential for making an impact on the lives of immigrants through this type of litigation is extremely exciting.”

Remberto Aguinada-Lopez was in a detention center, his asylum request denied, when Shane first came across his case.

Those seeking asylum in the U.S. must prove persecution due to race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit had ruled that family ties could not be included in the “particular social group” category; therefore, people fearing torture and death from gangs in El Salvador due solely to a familial association were not eligible for asylum.

Remberto had been a student at a technical school. He was not a gang member, but his cousin was. Rival gangs, as a means to intimidate this cousin, repeatedly beat, shot at, and threatened Remberto. These same gang members would eventually shoot and kill the cousin outside of Remberto’s mother’s house.

The long history of murderous despots in this world tells us that this is nothing new. Whether they battle over a country, a village, or a territory of several city blocks, violent thugs do not restrict their slaughter to other combatants.  Frequently they go after family members to “send a message” or just because they can. Such is life in El Salvador and in many other violence-ravaged countries and failed states in the world.

But the Eighth Court had rejected Remberto’s claim. Remberto, his hopes shattered, began to steel  himself for a return to his homeland when JFON, the Center for New Americans at the University of Minnesota Law School, and the law firm of Wichmer & Groneck teamed up to take his case. Together, they filed an emergency stay of removal and a petition for rehearing.

“Our odds of winning were not great,” admits Shane. “JFON had not represented him in the earlier proceedings; we were jumping in after he had lost at every previous level.”

Ultimately, the Eighth Circuit reversed its first decision and reaffirmed that persecution due to family ties is sufficient reason to make a person eligible for asylum.  Family ties joined the “particular social group” along with race, religion, nationality, and political opinion categories for asylum seekers.

A undocumented immigrant is placed in handcuffs for his plane trip back to his birthplace. Photo: International Business Times

However, before Shane and his team could celebrate this astonishing victory, they had to deal with a fresh calamity. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS)  had unlawfully deported Remberto back to El Salvador.

“It was an extraordinarily reckless action,” Shane says. “The Eighth Circuit had explicitly ordered DHS to keep him here while the court weighed our petition. But DHS deported him anyway.”

While Shane’s team scrambled to get Remberto back to the U.S., Remberto was in hiding in a distant relative’s house in El Salvador, confining himself to one room for weeks. Every day, every hour he remained there he was in grave danger.

The judge who had issued the original stay ordered the DHS to bring Remberto back as soon as possible. They were forced to return him on a chartered jet.

“He knew he was coming back to the U.S. to go to jail—and yes, detention centers are jails,”—yet still he preferred jail to remaining in El Salvador,” says Shane.

The deliberate violation of the court’s order had one fortuitous consequence for Remberto that DHS had not foreseen. Remberto, as a guest of the U.S. government, had entered the country lawfully on that chartered flight.  He was now eligible to seek an adjustment of status through his U.S. citizen spouse.

“This is how you make lemonade out of lemons,” declares Shane with a grin.

Shane’s team secured Remberto’s release from detention and reopened his removal proceedings. He is now reunited with his wife and pursuing his green card application. He remains profoundly grateful to Shane and the herculean efforts of his entire legal team, acknowledging that every day of his life is an unexpected gift.

“Literally,” Shane says, “his life was saved.”

We agree that someone saved this young man’s life.  But doesn’t the credit belong to Shane himself?

Shane shakes his head.  “No, I was part of an excellent legal team. I had great support from the JFON network of staff, volunteers, and donors. I can’t take credit,” he explains earnestly, “for something I didn’t do alone. “

There will be other Rembertos. Other Felipes, Carmens, Myats, Mustafas, and Gabriels. The names may change. The countries of origin may change.

But those who are targets of horrific violence perpetuated by gangs due to their family relationships now have a chance to seek safety here in the United States.

That will not change.

From now on, when judges within the Eighth Circuit weigh asylum cases, they will be required to consider family ties as a legitimate reason for seeking asylum.  That is a direct result of the game-changing impact litigation of Remberto’s legal team.

“Yes, it’s a good feeling,” acknowledges Shane, smiling broadly. “Trust me, there’s nothing like it in the world.”